Russia’s vow to annex pockets of occupied Ukraine has presented the United States and its partners with a predicament, as trepidation grows in Washington and Kyiv over whether the West is positioned to avert a pivotal shift in the war as soon as next month.
The impending deadline is raising fears that if Russia declares sovereignty over the occupied areas, it could use the ensuing months — when the pace of battlefield maneuvering is expected to slow with the arrival of fall and winter weather — to solidify its hold and leave the Ukrainians unable to wrest back what they and the West say is rightfully theirs.
“Time is on Putin’s side,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), referring to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Waltz in late July was part of a congressional delegation that toured the war-ravaged cities of Irpin and Bucha, and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. The congressman noted that in occupied areas, Moscow is already installing government offices, replacing the Ukrainian hryvnia with the Russian ruble as currency, handing out Russian passports and flooding the airwaves with pro-Kremlin media.
“The more time [Putin] gets to put his people in place,” Waltz said, “those occupied areas become more and more a new normal, a fait accompli, of being a part of Russia.”
The Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The country’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has said Moscow intends to protect areas “that want to determine their destiny independently.”
The specter of effectively losing tens of thousands of square miles to Russia has put fresh urgency behind the Ukrainian military’s attempt to stage a successful counteroffensive, with near-term plans to push for retaking the southern port city of Kherson. The government in Kyiv has mounted a fervent and at times public appeal for more security assistance, with Zelensky warning that only a few weeks remain to shift the momentum.
Biden administration officials insist they are exploring ways to respond to multiple contingencies, including annexation. There are, however, few signs they believe Russia asserting sovereignty over Ukrainian territory would demonstrably reshape the war — or that the threat alone should justify a dramatic escalation of military aid. Western assessments of the conflict routinely cite Russia’s staggering combat losses and ongoing problems with manning and weapons sustainment, while amplifying Ukraine’s success using NATO-supplied arms to maximum effect.
In more than a dozen interviews and briefings, officials from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community defended allied efforts to funnel weapons to Ukraine as sufficient to address Kyiv’s needs. These officials downplayed the prospect that a Russian land grab would mark a significant turning point and exuded confidence that plans to continue helping Ukraine defend itself in the long term will enable Zelensky to achieve his objectives.
“If Russia makes the mistake of seeking to annex Ukrainian territory, the Ukrainian military will seek to retake that territory, and it will have the support of the United States and the international community,” said Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale.
Yet to date, there is no indication the Biden administration intends to lift restrictions barring Ukraine from firing U.S.-provided weapons into Russian territory, even when fired upon from that side of the border, or supply the longest-range ammunition with which Ukrainian artillery crews might be able to reach such targets.
Similarly, there is no apparent rush to send Ukraine fighter jets, even though some senior U.S. officials have said that doing so is under consideration. Zelensky’s advisers have been adamant that if the war is to be won, Ukraine needs more firepower — and fast.
“When we get more HIMARS and hopefully combat aircraft, this is when we will be even more efficient with our military objectives and liberating Ukraine,” Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov, said in an interview.
Since Russia invaded in late February, the United States has taken consistent steps to help Ukraine defend its territory, including land behind enemy lines. Earlier this year, for instance, the U.S. intelligence community changed its long-standing guidance against sharing information about the locations of Russian forces and materiel in Ukraine’s occupied areas, and now provides those details to Ukrainian counterparts in real time, officials say.
The intelligence — including satellite imagery, reports from intercepted communications and insights into Russian military activities in the Crimean peninsula, which it seized in 2014 — has proved vital to Ukraine’s military gains, according to officials familiar with the information sharing. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about U.S. support for the war.
But there is deep concern in some circles that while Western allies say they are with Ukraine for the long haul, their actions haven’t been aggressive enough.
“We have a real deadline, and we need to meet that deadline,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who was part of the congressional delegation that visited Ukraine last month. “You can’t half-ass a war. You can’t put Ukraine in a position where they aren’t fully positioned to meet the challenge.”
In Europe, whose military contributions to Ukraine have lagged behind those of the United States, there are signs a shift could be underway. The European Commission on Monday said it had begun to disburse the first 1 billion euros in a 9 billion euro assistance package for Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Germany, Europe’s wealthiest country, late last month approved the production of 100 self-propelled howitzers for Ukraine’s army, and this week confirmed delivery of multiple-launch rocket systems to the country.
Some have pointed to these steps as an indicator of Germany’s “long-term support” for Ukraine, according to Rafael Loss, a Berlin-based analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Internal debates over whether Germany should back offensive operations, such as Ukraine’s bid to retake Kherson, in addition to defensive operations seem to have died down as the pace of heavy weapons deliveries has picked up.
Critics note that Berlin’s military-aid budget for Ukraine is dwarfed by what it spends on energy supplies from Russia. Recent cuts, including Moscow’s decision to slash the amount of gas flowing through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, are unlikely to shift that balance in the short term, leaving Russia with potential leverage or a means to retaliate against Europe for aiding Ukraine.
Facing the potential for an even tighter squeeze, the European Union last week agreed to reduce natural gas consumption over the winter months by 15 percent, or institute cuts if that benchmark cannot be met. The E.U. sanctioned Russian oil and coal, but not its natural gas, earlier in the conflict.
Following annexation, analysts say, Russia could point to any European-backed Ukrainian counteroffensives as a pretext to further choke off energy supplies in retaliation. Such economic pressure could test the Europeans’ resolve, said Sam Charap, a Russia specialist and political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
“They’re talking about gas rationing in Germany,” he said. “It’s getting pretty serious.”
Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, acknowledged that annexing Ukrainian territory would force Russia to defend it at all costs. But he dismissed conjecture that Putin had the capacity to lash out beyond Ukraine, warning that Russia’s resources are too beleaguered to engage in any credible fearmongering.
If the Russians “were able to be more aggressive, they would be more aggressive as we speak. Or weeks ago,” Rinkevics said in an interview. “It seems they have no more capability except for the nuclear one, and it seems they cannot use it for many reasons.”
Early in the conflict, Putin caused a stir by announcing that he was putting Russia’s nuclear arsenal on heightened alert. Western officials say the threat has yet to yield any tangible change in Russia’s nuclear posture, leading to a shared sense among the United States and its allies that any threat it issues, including a threat to annex territory, could be a bluff.
Sak, the aide to Ukraine’s defense minister, praised Ukraine’s success thus far in wearing down Russian forces, destroying their equipment and bashing troops’ morale. But Russia, he said, had committed so many atrocities and violations of international law that neither annexation nor any campaign to enforce it could be casually dismissed.
“We need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” Sak said. “And we understand Russia only responds to force.”
Birnbaum reported from Athens. Morris reported from Berlin. Shane Harris in Washington and Florian Neuhof in Berlin contributed to this report.